There’s no shame in having one glorious moment in your life. Reaching greatness once should not and does not suggest that the rest of your life is a failure. We all peak. It’s just that some peak higher and stay at the top longer. Acting works in the same way as every other profession. At some point in an actor’s career, an actor hits a high point. Some of the very best, like Leonardo DiCaprio, sustain greatness over an extended period of time. Some, like Daniel Day-Lewis, touch greatness every so often, take a break from it and then come back and touch it again. Some, like the actors on this list, touch it once and then never get back to that peak. Obviously, the term “perfect” is subjective. It’s judged subjectively and it depends on the actor and the role. What we’ve done with this list is look at actors who were exactly what we wanted in a role. Their performance was great, the casting was great, and it was universally applauded. There’s going to be a debate about some of these, of course. But that’s what makes this exercise fun.
On this list, you’re going to find plenty of high-quality actors. We don’t want to diminish the careers of these excellent actors. We just want to highlight what their high points were and show how they’ve never been able to get close to that again. Some had quality roles before and after their “perfect” performances, but a satisfactory performance won’t cut it. For whatever reason, these actors put it all together one time and only one time. Here are 15 Actors Who Were Perfect…But Only Once.
15. Gerard Butler – “300”
There will be some debate about this one because critics have revised their opinions on Zack Snyder‘s 300 quite a bit since its release. Still, despite the feelings toward the film, Gerard Butler‘s performance in it was excellent. He played the part perfectly and looked and felt exactly right in it. To us, Butler will always be King Leonidas. There may be a lack of familiarity that helped the role, but it doesn’t matter why. It worked. Before and after that role, Butler hasn’t caught a glimpse of that level of work again. He’s done some good voice-work in the How to Train Your Dragon franchise, and he was good in Coriolanus. But you can’t compare those roles to 300. Machine Gun Preacher was fun as well, but we wouldn’t bank on Butler ever getting back to the perfection we saw in 300.
14. Adrien Brody – “The Pianist”
It’s really no secret that after Adrien Brody won the Academy Award for Best Actor in Roman Polanski‘s The Pianist, his career has never again seen such great heights. Winning at 29 made him the youngest winner in that category. It appeared like he was on pace to be one of the greats. But it didn’t work out like that. It’s not that he hasn’t won another Academy Award that makes us say this, but it’s that the quality of his acting and films that have never ever been close to what we saw in The Pianist. Still, Brody’s been good. Bread and Roses was decent and so was his part in King Kong. We like him in The Village and The Thin Red Line as well. There were also his two nice performances in Wes Anderson‘s films, The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Darjeeling Limited. As we said, we like Brody, but it’s not a stretch to say that he’s only ever been perfect once and that’s more than most people ever get.
13. Patrick Fugit – “Almost Famous”
Currently, Patrick Fugit plays the lead role in the TV show, Outcast, and he’s good in it. At a point when it looked like he had forever left the spotlight, he returned to a high level of acting with this show. We’re happy to see it. Still, it’s not really a powerful performance. Truth be told, Fugit’s performance in Cameron Crowe‘s Almost Famous is the only time he did anything that could be considered powerful. After that role, Fugit’s career never quite lived up to the expectations we set for him (perhaps unfairly). He was up for the lead role in Donnie Darko but Jake Gyllenhaal replaced him and may have taken his place. Or maybe it was never his place to begin with. Fugit’s not a hack. He was good in White Oleander. He was good in Spun. He was even good in Saved! He just wasn’t Almost Famous good and he may not ever be at that level again.
12. Jean Dujardin – “The Artist”
It might be a little unfair to use Jean Dujardin in this list because much of his work is in French cinema and we acknowledge that we’re not as exposed to French films as we are to American films. But still, Dujardin was never as good in any other films as he was in The Artist, and frankly, it hasn’t even been close. For the role, Dujardin won the Academy Award for Best Actor, the Golden Globe Award, the BAFTA Award, the Screen Actors Guild Award, and the Cannes Film Festival Best Actor. He was phenomenal. We think the film might be a touch overrated, but Dujardin was brilliant. His French career before The Artist is well-respected, but he was mainly in goofball comedies. Since, Dujardin has appeared in The Wolf of Wall Street and The Monuments Men, but there is a very clear difference in the quality and the scope of the roles. Seems like The Artist was a perfect storm.
11. June Squibb – “Nebraska”
June Squibb is mostly known for playing supporting characters in film, but it’s not the size of the role that we’re judging here, it’s the quality. That’s not to suggest that Squibb has been bad in anything. In fact, she’s never been close to bad in our opinion. She’s just only been perfect once and that’s why she’s on this list. Squibb’s brush with perfection came recently in Nebraska. Her other roles in big films were in Alice, Scent of a Woman, The Age of Innocence, and Far from Heaven. Each of these films were bigger than Nebraska, but Squibb’s role wasn’t as effective. She was also in About Schmidt, but it was Nebraska that brought her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress and it is that film that stands out in her resume as the one truly great performance.
10. Marlee Matlin – “Children Of A Lesser God”
Marlee Matlin had the world as her oyster when she broke into the film scene. Her debut film, Children of a Lesser God, won her the Academy Award for Best Actress and the Golden Globe Award. It was a dream start for the deaf actress. Since then, Matlin’s had some good roles, but nothing even close to as good as her first. This might not be all her fault. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of great roles available for deaf characters. For a while, every deaf role there was available went to Matlin, but they were usually small characters and nothing of note. Matlin is a trail blazer, but that doesn’t change the fact that she’s only been really great once.
9. Cuba Gooding Jr. – “Jerry Maguire”
Fans of the recent People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story might fight this one, believing that Cuba Gooding Jr. played the perfect O.J., but we don’t think that’s accurate. After we saw him in Boyz n the Hood, it looked like Gooding Jr. was going to be a big thing in the industry and he was, if only for a brief period of time. His performance in Jerry Maguire, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, was outstanding. This was his big moment. Yeah, he was good in Pearl Harbor, As Good as It Gets, and American Gangster, but he wasn’t Jerry Maguire good. He may never be that good again.
8. Mary Steenburgen – “Melvin And Howard”
When Mary Steenburgen won both the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress and the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress for her part in Jonathan Demme‘s Melvin and Howard, we would have bet a lot of money that she would have been as good again in the future. Unfortunately, it never played out that way. Now, Steenburgen has been a lot of fun to watch in several films. There was Cross Creek, Parenthood, Back to the Future Part III, Philadelphia, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Elf, Step Brothers, and The Help. She was good in all of these. But when it comes to perfection, Steenburgen’s been there once and that was way back when she was in Melvin and Howard. That’s it!
7. Andy García – “The Godfather Part III”
Andy García was incredible in The Godfather Part III. Even though this film is often criticized because it doesn’t live up to the first two films, which makes sense considering they are two of the greatest films of all time, the third entry to the Godfather franchise is still a great film. García is probably the best thing about the film as well. He was good in The Untouchables, Internal Affairs, and Ocean’s Eleven, but no one should be too surprised to see García on this list. For his role in The Godfather Part III, García was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Even though he didn’t win, this was the perfect role for him and everything else since then has been mediocre to good at best.
6. Jennifer Tilly – “Bullets Over Broadway”
Jennifer Tilly is half poker player and half actress, but while she’s seen some great success in poker on more than one occasion, the acting side of her career has only been to promised land once. For Tilly, this came when she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in the film Bullets over Broadway. In that film, she was outstanding. She’s had some good parts in films like Let It Ride, Made in America, Liar Liar, and Bride of Chucky. But obviously, none of those were received even close as Bullets over Broadway was. Tilly has a very identifiable voice and look, which might work against her. Still, her thing worked incredibly well but only once.
5. Rosie Perez – “Fearless”
Maybe you think this one is unfair because you value Rosie Perez‘s performance in Spike Lee‘s Do the Right Thing more than we do. Or maybe you’re in love with her part in White Men Can’t Jump. Well, we don’t necessarily think too highly of those roles. Yeah, they were strong. But perfect? Not a chance. Perez has a very distinct voice. Some might call her voice “shrill” or “so annoying it’s tough to listen to her speak for an extended period of time.” It might be because of this voice that few of her performances stand out, but one does. Her Academy Award nominated role in Fearless is that performance. It was about as good as it gets for Perez. Even though she tends to play very similar roles, this one is head and shoulders above the others.
4. Linda Blair – “The Exorcist”
Linda Blair will always be best known for her turn as Regan in The Exorcist, but this wasn’t just a good part for Blair. It was perfect. For it, she was nominated for an Academy Award and won the Golden Globe. After that part, however, Blair’s career went downhill fast. Following the film, Blair had some pretty awful parts in Hell Night, Chained Heat, Night Patrol, Savage Island, and Savage Streets. And when we say awful, we mean it. We understand that it can be tough for a child actor to continue on performing at an extremely high level, especially when they start out the way that Blair did in The Exorcist, but she was never even close to approaching the bar she set for herself.
3. Randy Quaid – “The Last Detail”
These days, Randy Quaid is a bit of an oddball. It would be a safe bet to say that Quaid will never again be as good as he was in The Last Detail. For that role, he was nominated for a Golden Globe Award, a BAFTA Award, and an Academy Award. Some might point to his role in LBJ: The Early Years, but we’re not putting too much weight in his television roles. Too many mediocre actors have received Emmy’s, which to us is the most meaningless of all awards. We have a great amount of love for Quaid’s roles in National Lampoon’s Vacation movies and Independence Day, but they certainly weren’t earth-shattering performances
2. Gary Busey – “The Buddy Holly Story”
Gary Busey is often the butt of Hollywood jokes, but people tend to overlook the guy’s stellar career. We don’t want to be guilty of this, but we have to admit that he’s only ever been really great once. Don’t get us wrong though. We loved him in Lethal Weapon and Predator 2. We thought he was on point in Point Break, Lost Highway, and Piranha 3DD as well. But there has never been anything like when he played Buddy Holly in The Buddy Holly Story. For that role, Busey was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor. There’s a good chance that Busey’s severe motorcycle accident has made it so he never will be the same actor again, but we like him for what he is. He was just so good as Buddy Holly that it’s not a knock on him if he can’t get back to that level. It’s like watching a completely different actor.
1. Halle Berry – “Monster’s Ball”
Halle Berry is a quality actress. She’s been in a number of simply massive films. During the 2000’s, Berry was the highest paid actress in the industry for her box office allure. It would be easy to assume that she’s been outstanding more than once, but she really hasn’t. It was in 2002 that Berry hit her high mark. Her performance in Monster’s Ball won her the Academy Award for Best Actress and she absolutely deserved it. Some people have tried to backtrack and suggest Berry was undeserving of the recognition, but that’s bull roar. Since then, Berry has struggled to put together anything resembling a really great performance. She’s been fun to watch in the X-Men franchise, but she’s not been dazzling by any means. There was Cloud Atlas which was pretty good, but again, her performance was nothing to write home about. At least she’ll always have that Oscar.
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